Guest: I definitely owe all of you more than two updates in a row! Unfortunately I have exams...
Anonymous: So glad you like the story! I will try to resolve some of the suspense soon!
Aslan's Daughter: One month this time! Happy birthday! Hope you like this chapter as well :-).
Guest: The puppy eyes worked...here you go!
Yes, It's been a month, yes, I'm sorry! Here's the next chapter though :-)
16th. of Greenroof, 1012—Third-day
Susan slept little the next night—every time she closed her eyes, she seemed to see the pale, kind face of her friend twisting into an expression of sudden agony as she crumpled to the ground. She knew that somewhere, in the little wood that lay to the north of Cair Paravel there was a birch tree that now stood, slowly dying now that Jala's spirit no longer gave it life. The Dryads would bury her at its roots, Susan knew, as was their custom, and the tree itself would slowly wither and diminish—living on, but as a mere shadow of its former grandeur.
At dawn a light knock on the door of her chambers roused her from the fitful doze she had only a few moments before sunk into and she stood stiffly, feeling all her bones and muscles ache as if she had run the length of the Shuddering Woods during the night. She rubbed the sleep blearily from her eyes and opened the door, still trying to force her arms into the tangled sleeves of her dressing gown.
Tiberius, the faun who had brought her news of Jala's death stood in the corridor, one hand half raised as if to knock again. She blinked at him, uncomprehendingly for a moment, and wished fervently for coffee. She wasn't particularly fond of coffee—certainly not to the extent that Edmund was—but at that moment she felt she would have traded a great deal for a steaming cup of the bitter stuff.
Tiberius blinked back at her, wringing his hands and contorting his expression into one of complete and abject dismay. "Your majesty! I am so very sorry to disturb at such an hour. Really, what you must think of me! But the General, you see, he said I must wake you at once."
Susan wasn't entirely certain she was awake, but she did clumsily manage to untangle the sleeves of her dressing gown and shuffle into her slippers. She didn't have the time or awareness to spare on more than a passing thought of how terribly disheveled she must appear as she followed Tiberius down the corridor to the back staircase which led directly down to the courtyard. Orieus had seen her at her worst before and had never judged her for appearing less than composed and no one else would dare breathe a word about her current state while under his watchful gaze.
The air was cool, the sun had not quite risen and was still hovering—a thin sliver of fire above the Eastern Ocean—when she emerged into the courtyard. She blinked, and rubbed her eyes, still feeling distinctly unprepared for the day, and was vaguely aware of Tiberius babbling apologies and concern at her elbow but she had stopped truly listening to him somewhere between her chambers and the staircase. Now she put a hand on his shoulder and gave him the most radiant smile she could reasonably be expected to summon under the circumstances.
"It's quite alright, Tiberius. You have my thanks, both for your concern and for carrying out your duty in waking me with such consideration." She forced her smile to become even brighter and saw Tiberius' face flush red as he bowed and backed away, still bowing and wringing his hands.
Susan sighed once she saw him disappear back into the castle and felt the smile fade from her face. She squared her shoulders and looked around quickly for Orieus. She knew he had received word from the Western Dryads the night before. Every Dryad in Narnia had been alerted of Duke Tirnan's crime and his flight as soon as Orieus had announced it and the messages of Trees traveled far more swiftly than even the Swallows Susan employed as her personal messengers. At dusk the evening before a Juniper had sent word that Duke Tirnan was riding through the Western Woods, obviously making for the Telmarine on the other side of the Western Wilds. He had been alone, having left his attendants far behind in an obvious desire for haste, but Susan had yet to meet a horse, even a Talking Horse, that could outrun a Centaur—even with a day's head start.
She spotted Orieus on the other side of the courtyard, one hand resting on the hilt of a great sword, the other half raised as if to command silence. A moment later she marveled that she had not seen him at once. He was surrounded by Dogs, a pack of Wolves who had emerged from the Southern Mountains after the Witch's defeat and pledged their undying loyalty to the Narnian thrones, and a huge Snow Leopard who usually served as part of Edmund's personal guard stood at his side, tail twitching from side to side in obvious annoyance.
The Dogs were not all talking at once, as they often did, but Susan could still here a chorus of voices and barking carrying through the otherwise still air and she sighed as she crossed the courtyard to stand at Orieus' other side. The Dogs paused in whatever tale they had been regaling him with at the sight of her and instead fell to barking madly and running circles around her feet—a wild river of grey and brown fur and madly wagging tails.
Orieus dropped his hand, obviously realising that some attempts at order were utterly useless and inclined his head to her. "Queen Susan." He was nearly shouting to be heard over the raucous voices of the Dogs.
Susan smiled at him and nodded. "General, Tiberius said you requested my presence?" An enormous Wolfhound chose that moment to spin in a circle at her feet and then sit down, sharply at attention, tongue lolling out one side of his mouth as he regarded her brightly. "Good morrow, Linus," Susan said absentmindedly.
Linus wagged his tail. "Queen Susan! Queen Susan! The General says we're hunting today!" He looked deliriously happy at the prospect.
"I said nothing of the sort!" Orieus snapped, obviously nearing the end of his patience. "Your majesty, the Dryads have informed me of the path Duke Tirnan is taking back to his own land, with the aid of the best of Linus' hunting Dogs I believe we may intercept him before he reaches the Telmarine border and is lost to us."
The Snow Leopard, whose name Susan remembered was Asterius and who she still felt rather uncomfortable around, curled his lip back from gleaming white teeth. "Why you need Dogs," he paused to sniff disgustedly, "I really cannot comprehend," he said primly, dropping back to sit on his haunches and curling his tail carefully over his enormous front paws. His claws were out, Susan saw and resisted the impulse to shift further away from him.
Orieus sighed and began wading carefully through the mass of fur and shifting bodies with Susan following him quickly along the path he had cleared as Dogs dodged quickly away from the danger posed by his iron shod hooves. Susan knew that, however annoyed the General might be at the Dogs he would never intentionally step on any of them, but they obviously did not share her knowledge of his temperament.
Once they were free of the pack Orieus sighed and dropped his hand from the hilt of his sword as he turned to face her, expression both serious and concerned. He had foregone wearing his customary heavy armour and carried only a single great sword rather than his customary three—obviously he had planned for speed, rather than combat and Susan hoped fervently that combat would not be required.
"Are you well, my queen?" he asked quietly, his stern voice taking on a note of something that might have been gentleness, and Susan nodded silently, feeling tears gather in her eyelashes.
"Find him, General," she managed to say a moment later when she had, at least marginally regained control.
"I intend to," Orieus said solemnly, bowing his head slightly. "I will send the Dogs ahead with the Wolves. One of the Gryphons has agreed to scout from the air, and Asterius will remain with me to pick up the trail when our canine friends inevitably become distracted and lose it." The corner of his mouth twitched into the hint of an amused smile as he looked over Susan's head at the milling group of Dogs. Susan looked back at them and saw that most of the Wolves were sitting a little apart, obviously trying to remain dignified, but a few of the youngest were tussling playfully with a pair of Dogs. Asterius was watching with coldly withdrawn dignity, but Susan saw one paw strike out, quick as an adder, and swipe harmlessly across the muzzle of a Dog who got too close.
"He will not evade us," Orieus added, clasping his right hand over his heart and bowing his head in the manner of a Narnian swearing an oath. "He murdered one of our own, majesty, and gave great offense to you and your hospitality. However foolish Dogs may be about some matters they will run themselves into the ground before they let him escape after such actions."
Susan nodded and resisted the urge to throw her arms as far around him as they would reach. Even if it would have been dignified it would not have been practical, considering that he towered over her. "Aslan grant you speed, General," she said instead and raised her hand in blessing.
He bowed low, half kneeling so that his head was almost level with hers. "Have courage, my queen," he said quietly, and then was gone, clattering across the stones of the courtyard and shouting orders to the pack which immediately fell into some semblance of order as the gates were thrown open. They poured out in a stream of barking and fur and Susan watched them go for a moment before turning back to the castle, her footsteps slowed by indescribable weariness.
She did not doubt that they would catch the Duke, but she had no idea what she was meant to do with him when they did. Edmund had always been the one, out of the four of them, most suited to sitting in judgement and meting out justice. Susan knew that he was fair, that he always considered both sides and ruled impartially, and that he would never let his own feelings effect his judgements, but she did not know how she could replicate his calm, quiet fairness.
The Duke had murdered one of her subjects, one of her friends, in cold blood—how was she meant to separate her own anger and grief from what justice dictated? And even setting aside my own anger, can I truly order the execution of another living being? She shuddered at the thought. It was true that, even putting aside her personal feelings in the matter, justice would likely call for the Duke's death.
Susan knew she had taken lives before, killed in war when the lives of her family and people were threatened, but to sit in judgement and declare another's life to be forfeit was utterly foreign to her nature.
She pushed aside the thought with an effort and hurried back into the castle. It didn't matter yet, it was not a decision she had to face until Duke Tirnan was brought back to Cair Paravel, and, after all, it was just conceivable that he might manage to escape and be lost to Narnian justice beyond the borders of his own country.
Susan stumbled back to her rooms half in a daze and dressed hurriedly. There where still papers to be sorted through in Peter's rooms, with more flooding in nearly every hour, brought by flying couriers of all kinds, and most of them inquired when the sovereigns planned to hold a proper state funeral for their fallen siblings.
She sighed, forced her hair into a tangled braid, and stumbled exhaustedly down the corridor towards Peter's rooms. If she had been less tired and had been looking straight ahead of her, rather than down at the floor of the corridor, she might have missed the scrap of cloth lying in the corner. She stopped and stared at the torn fabric for a moment, her mind struggling to catch up with what she instinctively knew.
It was a small scrap of light green silk and what had first caught her attention was the slight sparkle of silver thread running through it. She recognised the colour, and the pattern of the thread, before she even picked it up. She knew, but she still knelt and lifted the scrap of fabric, the black skirt of her gown billowing out in a circle around her.
Birch leaves. The silver threads formed a delicate, faint pattern of birch leaves across the light green background and any doubts that had still lingered in her mind vanished. It was a torn scrap of Jala's dress, the one she had been wearing when Susan had seen her last—the one she had been wearing when she had been murdered.
But what is it doing here, outside the door to Peter's rooms? She frowned, looking down at the fabric, feeling as though she were standing at the very edge of some terribly important truth. There was nothing nearby that could have caught the fabric and torn it. The corridor was wide and well-lit, hung with tapestries and thickly carpeted, and Susan knew Jala and her inherent gracefulness too well to believe she had stumbled and torn the dress in that way. Then how?
She straightened and examined the nearby tapestries more closely, not even certain what exactly it was she was looking for until her eyes fell on a slightly torn corner of one tapestry. She pulled it aside with a feeling of inexplicable dread. The shifted tapestry revealed a sort of hidden alcove set into the wall behind it, with stairs leading down into darkness at the back of it. But it was not that which made Susan clap a hand over her mouth to hold back a cry. The floor, revealed by the torchlight now streaming through the gap in the tapestry, was covered with blood. It was dried, but no more than a few days old at the most, and Susan recognised the slight, dark green tinge to it.
Dryad blood. Trembling slightly, she stepped back from the alcove and pulled one of the torches in front of Peter's door free from its mounting before pulling the tapestry aside again. This time she let it fall closed behind her as she picked her way carefully around the bloodstain and began descending the stairs. She already knew where the hidden passage would lead, and a few moments later found herself pushing aside another tapestry to emerge directly to the left of the library doors.
She put out the torch and sat down on the cool stone next to the doors, clenching her shaking hands into fists. It was too much, almost too ridiculous to be believed. Secret passages, and lies, and…and murder, but not the kind she had thought.
It was slowly becoming clear now, and Susan nearly wished she had continued in ignorance. Jala had not been killed in front of the library, that much was clear from the blood in the hidden alcove, and from the fabric torn from her dress.
Someone was spying on me, Susan realised dully, resting her head in her hands. Someone had used the secret passageway to creep up to Peter's door, presumably to listen in on her conversation with Lord Gale. Jala must have come back and surprised the spy.
There would have been a struggle, the sounds muffled by the thick carpet on the floor, and if someone had clamped a hand over her mouth Jala would not have been able to call out a warning. The spy must have dragged her back into the alcove and stabbed her, then dragged the body down to the library to be found.
But Sundance heard her arguing with the Duke, unless he lied. Susan had no fondness for the old Badger, but lying so blatantly and under such circumstances did seem rather beneath him. After all, he had been Edmund's friend, and Susan knew how particular her brother had been about his friends. If Sundance was a traitor Edmund would have known.
They must have argued before she died, maybe that was why she came back, to warn me of some new madness of the Duke's. Sundance must have been reading and lost track of time, he might not have known how long it had been since he heard them. Susan groaned at the realisation that the Duke, who was now being pursued by a pack of Dogs, Wolves, a Leopard, and a grieving Centaur, could not have killed her friend.
Duke Tirnan would not have known about the secret passage, how could he have, and what reason would he have to spy on her after he had already made up his mind to leave in a fury. Lord Gale had been with her, and she would hardly have suspected him anyway, and Tarkaan Areesh had already shown his innocence.
Another Narnian did this, Susan thought wearily. How could they! She was one of them! But there was no other possible explanation. There was a spy in Cair Paravel, and now that person, whoever they were, was also a murderer.
Not to mention that the Telmarine King will be furious when he hears we blamed Tirnan for a crime committed by one of our own. She stared blindly down at the floor of the corridor and felt her shoulders slump further.
"I don't know what to do," she said aloud, and her voice echoed back to her from the empty corridor, distorted and mocking. I don't know what to do.
What she did know was that sitting and sulking in an empty corridor would do very little to either solve her problems or make her feel better, and after another long moment she stood and brushed the dust from her skirt. There was only one place she knew to retreat to when she faced a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.
The kitchens of Cair Paravel had always been a place of wonder for Susan. When they had first taken up residence in the huge, echoing rooms of the castle she had felt utterly lost, though she never would have admitted it to anyone. It had not been until she discovered the kitchens that Susan had begun to feel truly at home. Now stepping through the arched doorway into the series of high-ceilinged rooms, filled with steam and the smell of baking bread, was like stepping back in time.
The Cook, who was a Wolverine with glossy red brown fur, was standing on her hind legs atop a stool and was prodding at what appeared to be a slab of meat with one clawed forepaw. The first time Susan had approached the kitchens with the objective of helping prepare the evening meal Cook had been horrified at the idea of a queen in the kitchens, but over the years her sense of propriety seemed to have decreased and now she barely spared a glance for Susan as she collected an apron from the hook beside the door and tied it on over her dress.
Susan crossed the room to stand beside Cook, and peered at the slab of meat—she couldn't see anything in particular wrong with it—but Cook was glaring at it as if it had personally offended her.
"Is anything the matter?" Susan asked, surveying the rest of the kitchen and finding it less bustling with activity than it usually was. There were a few assistant cooks chopping vegetables on a low table across the room, and two Rabbits were in the process of depositing a basket of carrots in front of them, but other than that the kitchens seemed deserted.
Cook peered up at her shortsightedly and huffed, the fur along her neck and shoulders bristling slightly. "Is anything the matter! I'll tell you what's the matter, your majesty, it's this beef rump." She punctuated the words by stabbing her claws into the offending beef, though Susan still couldn't see anything the least bit wrong with it. "It's raw," she added, with such a tone of defeated finality that Susan almost expected her to burst into tears.
"I—" Susan searched for words for a long moment and found that she had none. "I'm sorry?" she said at last, wondering if she should try to put her arm around Cook's shoulders in an attempt to comfort her.
The Wolverine spun to face her, a half snarl pulling at her lips. "It isn't you who should be sorry! It's that fool Tiberius, he was supposed to help me, since half the kitchen staff have cried themselves sick, and now he's run off with the General and his search party." She jumped down from the stool and stormed across the kitchen, knocking other stools over as she made her way towards the enormous ovens and the smell of baking bread.
Tiberius. Susan stared after her, a vague feeling of dread sweeping over her. Tiberius had certainly not been included in Orieus' official troop that had gone in pursuit of Duke Tirnan, and had said nothing to her of his intention to go.
An image flashed behind her eyes, Tiberius white faced and shaken, sobbing into her handkerchief and shouting murder. There had been blood on his tunic, she remembered—the thick, dark blood of a Dryad—and he had known where to find her before Orieus had. She had been in Peter's study, not her own, he couldn't have known, unless he had been listening at the door.
And it had been Tiberius who had first connected the Duke to murder. He had been dropping innocent seeming phrases about the Duke's temper and his own fears that there would be murder done by the end of it ever since the Telmarine had arrived. Susan had thought nothing of it, especially given that Tirnan did have a terrible temper, but no one else had seemed concerned that he would go so far as to commit murder.
Tiberius had been tricking them all for a very long time, that much was becoming clear to Susan. She stumbled back and found herself sitting on Cook's stool, her head spinning with the new realisation.
The Duke was innocent, any doubts she might still have had on that count were gone, and Tiberius had gone with Orieus to find him. If they did find him, she was now certain that Tirnan would never make it back to Cair Paravel. Tiberius had killed once—had murdered a friend—he could kill again, and Duke Tirnan would doubtless be able to prove his innocence if questioned. If he died, trying to escape capture he would be considered all the more guilty for running.
The trees. I have to get a message to Orieus, surely the trees can get it to him in time. Dryads could communicate over immense distances and could travel far faster than even a Centaur or a flying Gryphon. She stood and pulled the apron off hurriedly, leaving it draped over the stool as she half ran towards the kitchen door.
Cook gave her a bemused look and called after her, holding a pan of fresh bread in one paw and waving the other paw in the direction of the meat. "What am I to do about dinner?"
"Make stew," Susan called back and pushed through the door, out into the corridor, and immediately collided with a tall figure hurrying in the opposite direction who seemed to be dragging a smaller, struggling figure behind them.
She stumbled back, steadied herself against the wall, and found that she was staring up at Lord Gale. He appeared terribly disheveled and his face and neck were covered in scratches, as is he had lost a fight with a briar, but he was holding a struggling Tiberius firmly by one arm, and his expression seemed frozen between triumph and shock as he looked down at her.
"Your Grace," he inclined his head slightly, a smile pulling at one corner of his mouth. "It seems I've caught a murderer."
Please review? Pretty Please?